This excellent one volume by Hew Strachan is a reissue of the book first published in 2003. The author is a renowned professor of war at Oxford University. His book 'To Arms', the first volume of a trilogy yet to be completed, was greeted with aclaim by scholars worldwide. Strachan has also written a number of thought-provoking books on current strategy and the problems that have arisen since 1990.
This work is aimed at the general reader. Unlike a number of others however it is not replete with truisms and cliches. The author is far too good at his craft to do this. It would, for example, be very hard to better the introduction to this book in which he discusses, for example, the importance of the brilliant book by Clausewitz on the philosophy of war and its lessons for today.
One paragraph about the Great War is worth repeating here: 'Moreover, many of the answers we come up with can be as subjective and tendentious as many of the views expressed by the war's eyewitnesses'.If only some writers on the war would heed this, particularly its critics.
Strachan rightly criticises the late Basil Liddell Hart's thesis that blockade and naval power was the cause of Germany's demise, a thesis that the influential historian singularly failed, not for the first time in his many writings, to support with any evidence. The author is also rightly dismissive of the research behind many of the statistics that are regularly trotted out to support biased opinion, for example, the claim that 6 million civilians died as a consequence of the war, and the German claim that 1 million civilians died as a result of the blockade. As Strachan says in a brilliant aside: 'Hindsight's hold on objective truth is a fragile thing'.
The chapters in this book deal with all the major aspects of the war including its global nature, the revolution in Russia and Germany's last gamble in 1918 to win the war. It is not a book for those who want to read about battles. Library shelves already creak under the weight of these. There is an excellent and fascinating chapter on Jihad. Millions of Muslims were told to commit holy war against the Entente powers. It failed despite the Kaiser trying to encourage revolution in Egypt and India in order to weaken the Entente's flanks. Temporal loyalties overrode religious ones in most cases.
In a final chapter, Strachan discusses the attempts to ensure stability and peace after 1918. He rightly says one must know about the First World War to understand the Second but there was no inevitability as many have argued, linking the second with the first
Another quote from the book to ponder over:'We gloss over too readily the last letters of those killed in the First World War, letters that tell their loved ones not to grieve because they have died in a just cause'. If only those who condemn the war as futile, and run by butchers and donkeys, would instead focus on the facts instead of on their prejudices based on ignorance.
The accompanying maps are excellent as are the Illustrations.
Chapter notes include many of the best secondary sources including several very important German ones. The Index is excellent and comprehensive.
A book to savour. It will make you think and appreciate the difference between true research and the numerous blood and mud biased accounts that use only those facts that support a predetermined point of view. There are numerous attractive theories about the war, unfortunately inconvenient facts make them worthless.
No other general account can equal this one by a master historian.
Cliché has it that hindsight gives us understanding. Is that really the case? If that is so, then why are historians still arguing about the causes of the First World War, and who should be blamed? Hindsight doesn't necessarily generate wisdom or understanding but it can give rise to arrogance: we assume that people who lived through an event of which we have no experience must have seen things the way we think we would have done. The First World War is no less prone to the arrogance of hindsight. It is a story of the flower of youth trampled down in the mud of Flanders, of budding poets' lives tragically cut short, of brass hats safely behind the lines callously ordering millions of young men to their deaths. We are going to hear a lot of that over the coming months. But how accurate is it?
This is not how people saw things at the time. Letters revealed that many soldiers though that they fought for a good cause - that went for all sides. Seventy-Eight British generals were killed in action - and 71 German and 55 French generals likewise died in action - not exactly the picture you get from watching Stephen Fry in Blackadder, is it? The ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli were not rugged Digger types but urban dwellers and they felt they were fighting for the old country - again, not the impression you get watching Mel Gibson in the film, Gallipoli. Wilfred Owen does not get a look in in this book - presumably out of no disrespect for his literary talents but because his view on the war was not representative. We can of course debate its point and whether it was worth it - just so long as we don't assume we are speaking for the war's participants when we do, and be aware of our own conflicted judgements when we speak of the war. As the author notes, we venerate the writers that condemned the war, but condemn those who embraced appeasement, the logical correlate, twenty years later (p.330).
There is much more to the book than that. Although Strachan is a military historian, this book is not a mere compendium of battles. He has a broad grasp of the interplay of politics and economics and does not see battles in isolation. In over 300 pages, he looks at the war not just from the military dimension but also on the relationship between war and domestic politics, the economic battle of production and the role of the home front, the intricacies the relationships inside the two opposing coalitions, the Central Powers and the Entente. The author has a very good knack for summing up, in just a few sentences, what the nub of a particular issue was. Take for instance the discussion on the development of international tensions in the run up to the war. Britain settled its differences between France and Russia in the 1900s, to stabilise the international order. Germany, feeling encircled by Britain, France and Russia, had every incentive to revive enmities among them and break up what it saw as a hostile coalition ranged against it, and achieve great power status in doing so. In this sense, the perception that German ambitions destabilised the international order prior to the war is justified - although he does not go as far as pinning blame on Germany exclusively for the actual outbreak of the war.
Victory for the Entente was not just a matter of winning a war of attrition, with the scales tipped in its favour by American intervention, plus the Royal Navy's blockade (the contribution of which has been overstated, according to the author). The Entente won the battle of production and managed the poliitcal demands of coalitional warfare better than the Central Powers. While both sides learned from experience, the Entente gained the edge on the technological learning curve, and finally managed to bring such innovations like the tank and the aeroplane to bear, with decisive effect. The book also challenges the idea that the war was a `European Civil War'. It was a World War. Whole chaters are given to the war in Africa and the Russian Revolution too to demonstrate that universal ideological principles were at stake, with global impact. The war was no local difficulty in Europe. Its legacy is still being felt today, outside Europe's boundaries. As far as Israel/Palestine and Iraq are concerned, the First World War is long-over but the peace is yet to come.
As a general introduction to the subject, this book is excellent. It is only a shame that only one of the proposed three volumes on the war that this author was supposed to write has appeared (over 10 years ago). I would definitely want to read them, if they ever do come out in print. In the meantime, if you want a general introduction to the subject, and you want to know more about the war than just the battles, then this is an excellent place to start.
on 31 August 2013
I spent a long time choosing a book about the First World War to take on holiday with me and I think I made the right choice. There was no Kindle version available so I was forced to take the paberback, but I'm glad I did as it's infinitely more satisfying than the Kindle books I sampled on this topic.
It turns out there is a TV series accompanying this book, which I didn't know until I reached the end. I had the impression while reading it that someone had put a gun to Hew Strachan's head and said something like, "Forget the legions of academic essays and lectures you've done up till now give us the First World War in 300 pages or less." That person, it seems, was Alan Clements, who is mentioned in the acknowledgements.
Every sentence has a point. The writing is amazingly lucid and easy to follow. There are revelations on every page and the overall effect is stunning. The book completely overturns popular conceptions of the first world war that have filtered down through films, novels, poetry and the general media. It is informative, logical, comprehensive and concise. You can feel the author's passion for his subject on every page but his presentation is very low-key.
I really can't praise this book enough. One of the remarkable things is how the author combines his insights into tactical military problems with analysis of wider economic and political pressures, so that you understand in a completely new way why events unfolded as they did.
There is only so much you can do in 350 pages (including notes, maps, illustrations and acknowledgements!) but his canvas is huge. It is typical of his approach that his description of the battles of Verdun and the Somme are a brief section in a more wide-ranging chapter.
There are many characters in this great drama, many names of people and places, official titles and roles to remember and loose ends to be tied up, but the author marshals all his facts with the minimum of fuss, gives you everything you need and states his case plainly so that there is never any confusion or doubt.
Above all, the book appears to be a very truthful one. It is very fair in its assessment of who was responsible for specific acts of cruelty, for harsh and difficult decisions, for acts of bravery and for mistakes.
It's a model work for any historian but, like all great literary examples, it's probably impossible to emulate unless, like the author, you have a lifetime's experience of hard work and exhaustive reading on which to draw. I particularly liked the author's statement that '... it seemed otiose to provide a bibliography for this book.' (Acknowledgements, page 335.)
Nevertheless, it has made me want to read more!
on 7 September 2014
At the time of writing, Amazon wants to know if reviews are about `verified purchases'. Not all of my other reviews have come up as such, so to prove I have actually read the book, I shall make references to it.
Unlike other, unhelpful, one line reviewers ("Brilliant", yes, but why ?) I shall try and justify why this is worthy of your attention and purchase.
Over the past 50 years or so, the British have had a very negative view of WW1 given to them, until this has become a self-reinforcing circle from which there seems no escape. During this process, the British view of WW1 has become steadily more and more reduced: broad view (land, sea, air) -> war in Europe (land, sea, air) -> war in Flanders (land, air) -> tommies in trenches (land). Further, this has become simply an environment of mud, blood, machine guns, the word "slaughter" every five minutes, and "In Dulce decorum Est".
Well, that's not a "world" war, is it ? That's an inter-European war at best, the British versus the Germans at its most reductionist. To those outside, this is typical Euro-centrism: our "neighbours falling out" must be a "world" war.
But a "world" war it truly was. Very rarely, if ever, do we British hear about what happened in Mesopotamia, Palestine, what were then the African colonies, the Fast East (yes, even the Japanese got involved too), and more to the point "why ?".
As another reviewer has pointed out, this book is long on "why ?" and short on "what ?". This is good because there is little written on "why ?", and one can use this book to provoke further investigations into other people's descriptions of "what ?" (eg the heartily recommended "Battle Story" series for compact descriptions of individual battles). There is a whole world to get into 331 pages, something had to go, and what goes are the bits one can easily find elsewhere.
It is not until Chapter 6 do we get to tommies in trenches. There's a whopping, and joyously refreshingly new, interesting, and anti-reductionist five chapters on the rest of the world. This goes some way to explaining why some countries still hate us. For example, have you heard of the Sykes-Picot Agreement ? No, because the British education establishment is obsessed with mud, blood, pointlessness, and the "Blackadder" view of WW1, not with educating us into what went wrong, and why some countries think we're two-faced (expletives).
When we do get to the tommies in trenches bit, what could have been a tedious re-tread of mud, blood, and "slaughter" fortunately isn't, as we are taken into the reasoning behind the choices of battles, on both sides, eg the in-fighting between Joffre and Haig. Those who wish to condemn Haig as a war criminal for sacrificing innocent British youth would do well to read this chapter, and find out how much the French twisted his arm as well as thinking the British weren't pulling their weight because we weren't dying as much.
In the latter part of the book, we are taken through how the German gains in 1917 actually led to their downfall (read the book to find out why), the relationship between the war and the Russian Revolution, and the complicated nature of the after effects. At the time it was not seen as a pointless venture, and ironically, as far as Prof Strachan is concerned, the "war to end all wars" showed many smaller countries that war was a good way to achieve nationalist aspirations. As an aside, the Belgians do not consider it pointless, neither do the French, or the Canadians. The Battle for Vimy Ridge was very costly in terms of lives, but is seen as the point at which Canada became a country - it was the making of them, not the breaking of them. Which makes me wonder why, in Britain, we are determined to demean the efforts of those who took part by seeing it as a pointless waste of time.
There are some small, negative comments that need to be made. Perhaps the chapters could have been shorter so there's less of a Herculean effort to get to a chapter break before the hot chocolate is finished (many people like to get to a definite break, I know I do). The older generation may prefer to get in on Kindle as the typeface is quite small. And there's some omissions from the index, eg i) the Somme is usefully compared with other battles on pp238-9 and p276 but this is not indexed, ii) the Sykes-Picot Agreement isn't specifically indexed, one finds it via a reference to T E Lawrence, which implies you would know to do that - not everyone is that well-informed or thinks like that.
Please buy, and read, this book, approaching it in the knowledge you are going to have to take your time over it to get the best out of it. Let's kill the "Blackadder" view through being well-informed.
on 16 November 2003
So much more than just a 'companion' book to the excellent television series, this is actually a formidable new history of the First World War by one of the world's leading historians on the subject. Hew Strachan shows how the war touched other countries and people while challenging the notion that the loss of life was futile. A constantly stimulating and gripping book, this is a brilliant addition to the many books on the war - as is the other companion title, A War in Words, which brings together some amazing personal stories of the war. Highly recommended!
on 27 May 2013
I have read all the rave reviews of this book on Amazon and on the book's cover -- such as "Quite simply the best short history of the war in print" and "Meticulous... [with] amazing, newly unearthed photographs within this beautifully designed book."
I can only envy the thorough knowledge of the war that others possess that enables them to praise so highly and without reservation. For the likes of me, someone who has read a fair amount about the first world war (mainly but not only novels and poetry) but is not a student of the war nor a professional historian, a large amount of this book leaves one struggling to find the forest amidst the profusion of trees.
Parts of it I found clear and informative, other parts tangled, dense, filled with names of people and locations I often couldn't place, making chunks of the text thoroughly confusing. Many of the photos are good but often comprise a distraction from the text rather than a help in understanding anything. The placement is decorative rather than instructive. I'd have benefited far more from diagrams showing mountains, rivers, borders, location of armies, salients and suchlike: those would have made some of the dense text intelligible. The six pages of maps in the front of the book are little help, often lacking features one might look for in order to clarify what is said in the text about movements of men and materiel, tactics, and so on.
Elsewhere (again, in place of photos) tables of numbers -- of troops, tanks, ships, artillery, food supplies, etc., etc., etc. -- would have been much more help in grasping the overall argument than complex sentences.
Professor Strachan is praised because he "brings to life and explains an immensely complex historical phenomenon" and "brings together the details of events and the big picture to build a compelling narrative." The only problem is that for a layperson like myself, neither an historian nor a professional book reviewer, this is only intermittently true and I fear that if I took a course taught by Professor Strachan I'd do very poorly. The way he presents material in much of this book is just not good teaching.
on 23 October 2003
The best book on the First World War I've ever read. It shatters countless cliches and illusions that have become standard views of the War. Strachan is very convincing in telling us that the War was indeed a 'World' war, not just a european one eg. 2 million Africans fought on the Allied side alone in some shape or form. Simply put, this is essential reading for anyone remotely interested in the topic. In fact, for anyone interested in history at all.
on 15 February 2004
The literature on the First World War is vast. A lot of books continue to be published every year. Some are potboilers, most are OK, a few are very good. Occasionally, one appears which is special. This is one of those rarities.
Hew Strachan is engaged on a full-scale three volume history of the conflict, the first of which has recently appeared. This companion to a magnificent TV series provides an overview of all three. I would hazard to say that in time the historiography of the First World War will come to be divided into pre- and post-Strachan eras. He has changed everything.
As a writer myself, his achievement fills me with awe. This book distills twenty years of research. Working painstakingly from the ground up, through pulling together neglected or unknown sources, changing emphasis and correcting old assumptions, Strachan has built up a radically new picture. The weaving together of detail and the big picture is masterly. We begin to understand that this was a global conflict, fought over big issues, which had a huge impact on the world we know today.
It is futile to try to summarise it. Revelations come too thick and fast. It will change your view not just of the First World War, but of the history of the C20th. In writing it, Strachan has not just done great honour to his profession, but great service to the general public. It is a massive achievement. Just buy it and read it.
on 5 March 2015
If ever a book fell in-between 3 and 4 stars - it's this.
By necessity, a single volume history of the Great War - and not a particularly long one at that, with this version coming in at 330 pages - must concentrate on the key events that shaped the War's outcome, and can't really examine these in any great detail. 'Lesser' events/figures are omitted or dealt with in a passing reference. So while as an overview, this book's hard to fault, it'll disappoint anyone seeking a deeper and fuller narrative. Particularly tantalising were glimpses of the political background/events in the major participant countries, about which I'd like to learn a lot more. The battlefield history of 1914-18 is well-known enough - less so the decisions and manoevring made hundreds of miles from the front.
The construction of the book isn't a linear narrative, but more the parcelling-up of key component factors of the War into 10 stand alone chunks. Trouble is, that due maybe to length constraints, there's not much effort to link or inter-relate these. The inability to pause for breath and bring together disparate threads is a drawback.
But the biggest criticism I have is that though Prof Strachan may be a great historian, he's not actually a great writer. You'd need to be an equally good scholar - or extraordinarily arrogant - to question his reporting, rationale and analysis of the War, but with so much to cram in, the style at times - as others have mentioned here - can be a little dense; while at other times the writing itself is simply clumsy. Even ungrammatical. The irritating thing is that with a stronger editor, this could've been so easily avoided. And because of this (for me) major fault, it relegates a good book into an average one.
But still worth reading !
on 17 March 2014
What I liked about this book was the way it focused upon the ambitions of the main protagonist Germany, rather than viewing the War entirely from a British perspective. This enabled the ramifications of German policies both within the European theatre and worldwide to be followed with greater clarity and understanding. This was especially interesting when discussing the effects of the War upon the Empire and the attempts of the German Navy to cause havoc from their Far East base from which they issued as the Japanese advanced. I was disappointed that having introduced these theatres of conflict they were not further explored, especially with regard to the Aftermath. Chapters on the Balkan complexities were good and the opportunistic entry into the War of Japan, Turkey and Italy illuminating. So too was the breakdown of the various ethnic minorities and their aspirations for self-determination and how both the Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman empires had sought to contain them. It was surprising how similar the campaigns on the Eastern Front and the Middle East were to those engaged in WW11. I would have welcomed a more opinionated summary from the Author as to his views on the Wars legacy and what he feels to be the main unresolved issues that are still relevant and affecting us today.
The style of writing lacks the flair and verve of an AJP Taylor but it is far from stilted and reads easily although at times you can see how carefully considered a word or phrase has been. The Author often makes reference to earlier pre war events by date only and sometimes I had to stop and 'Google' but it's unreasonable to expect my own ignorance to be fully anticipated and learning something new is why I read in the first place. The Authors depth of knowledge and research is impressive ( and enviable ) More important was the frugality of maps. Those available necessitated leaving the page to view. Perhaps this just applies to the Kindle edition. At times I yearned to have a proper book in my hands.
Despite these small concerns I would recommend this book. It's interesting, stimulating and leaves you wanting more. Do politicians read History Books?
( Oh dear, Churchill immediately comes to mind!)